8 tips for no-touch flying: a completely serious survival guide to economy seating

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I fly a fair amount. It’s a necessary evil, I guess. Road trips are for teenagers and very tolerant parents of small children. Trains are slow and expensive. Walking is usually out of the question if there’s a plane involved anywhere in the equation. So I fly.

I also don’t like touching people, especially for hours at a time when I’m already annoyed about being stuck in economy class. I’m not scared of germs or anything, I just get really tense when there’s physical contact involved. Being tense means I can’t sleep, and not sleeping on four-hour plane rides is not an option.

These are notes compiled from my experiences over the last few years. I can’t guarantee they’ll work for anyone else. You have to have a certain personality type to pull most of them off. They usually work for me, but there are always edge cases. Sometimes spending four hours with your knee touching someone else’s knee while squirming around the elbow they’ve inconsiderately placed against your shoulder is inevitable. That’s what drinks are for.

Good luck.

1. Get on the plane first.

If you have the option, be sure to get to your seat before the others in your row. This will help with the next few steps.

2. Appear crabby immediately

  • say things under your breath, roll your eyes and shake your head at things that aren’t really annoying
  • people are hesitant to upset already-annoyed people and unlikely to start a conversation or risk encroaching on your space.
  • Note: be careful not to illicit sympathy by being annoyed with something that anyone else might agree is annoying. You’re not here to make friends.

3. Claim extra domain from the beginning

  • personal space prior to liftoff is weird. Everyone seems to take up more space on the ground. If you can define your territory on the runway, it will turn into empty space after liftoff even if you’re touching someone in the beginning.
  • if the person shares your distaste for contact with unknown humans, simply resting your elbow on the arm rest as they sit down will discourage them from using said armrest. If lost, you can re-establish this domain every time they shift or reach for something.
  • let your knees spread to a comfortable distance and see if they touch anyone else’s. Doing this slowly is creepy enough that most people will recoil and give you your space.
  • If they don’t concede:
    1. reach for your under-seat carry-on between your legs, forcing your knees apart.
    2. Apologize for the inconvenience, but only retract your knees part of the way back together.
    3. This results in more space than you need. Maintain it for a few minutes then gently pull your knee away from theirs. Usually they’ll be relieved to have the space back and will stay put.
    4. Repeat as necessary during the flight.

4. Leg comfort

After takeoff, pull your carry-on under your knees and use the cubby under the seat in front of you to extend your legs. Crossing your legs at the ankle allows you to relax your legs completely without expanding your stance.

5. Arm comfort

Bring a jacket or extra t-shirt and use it to hold your arms together

  1. fold the garment over one arm
  2. place your other arm below it, in front of the folded fabric
  3. using the arm within the fold, roll over the arm on the outside to create a figure-8
  4. this allows you to completely relax your arms without needing the arm rests. It’s also like a warm hug from the only person you want touching you at the time. You.

6. Neck comfort

If your headrest has flexible wings (pull in on the edges to see), use them to allow your neck to relax without worrying about falling over onto the person next to you. Also, they make great visual blockers and conversation stoppers.

7. Don’t be afraid to ask people to stop touching you

Most passengers are understanding of personal space if you’re not being unreasonable1. If “additional motivation” is necessary, simply imply that if you have to ask again, you will become the most annoying seat-mate they’ve ever had. If you have to follow through on this threat, order a whiskey and:

  • ask lots of questions
  • interrupt their answers
  • keep showing them pictures of your pets
  • hand them your phone, but right before they take it, say “wait, that’s not it”
  • repeatedly reach into your pocket on the side facing them or arch your back steeply to scratch an itch, being sure to press your elbow against them each time
  • pretend to sleep and let your head fall onto their shoulder
    • snore loudly but in random snorts
    • drool will seal the deal, but may get you punched
  • talk about your least-favorite political party in very passionate terms
  • Say “blessings on you” a lot and ask them if you can tell them about Jesus
    • lose your train of thought and tell them about Amway instead
  • Say “I think we’ve been vectoring for the last 20 minutes” every 20 minutes or so. This is especially annoying toward the beginning of the flight. Random observations about windspeed, visibility and any obvious attempt to prove you could easily pilot this craft will work.

8. Non-touch annoyances

In some cases, the person next to you is within their space but fidgeting constantly and applying pressure through the arm rest.

  • Usually I find that mentioning how their fidgeting is affecting me is enough to elicit an apology and ensure the rest of the flight is peaceful
  • In some cases asking to swing the arm rest up will cause them to be more conscious, assuming they don’t like touching strangers any more than you do. Most people will comply with the request (in my limited experience with this tactic) and making it will only add credibility to your inscrutable and easily annoyed persona.

I have a few more, maybe a second installment once I’m inspired with the irrational rage I’ll feel after my next trip. May your connections always time out perfectly and headwinds always be in your favor.

  1. To me, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that the area within imaginary lines drawn from the center of the armrest to the set in front of you are personal space. Get off my lawn.

Quick tips are random posts regarding something I discovered on my way to something bigger. They usually get longer than “quick” would imply, for which I refuse to apologize.